Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #2
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: January 15, 1982
Genre: Eighties Slasher
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: Joe Giannone
Producer: Gary Sales
Screenplay: Joe Giannone
Story: Joe Giannone, Gary Sales
Special Effects: William Depaolo, Rob Holland, Matt Vogel
Cinematography: James Lemmo
Score: Stephen Horelick
Editing: Daniel Loewenthal
Studio: The Madman Marz Lives Company
Distributors: Jensen Farley Pictures, Video Film Organisation
Stars: Gaylen Ross, Tony Fish, Harriet Bass, Carl Fredericks, Seth Jones, Jan Claire, Alexander Murphy Jr, Jimmy Steele, Michael Sullivan and Paul Ehlers as Madman Marz
Suggested Audio Candy
Stephen Horelick “End Theme”
Every child loves a good campfire story right? There’s nothing to make us question our decision to rough it more than a well told urban legend and, if I have learned a single thing from my lifelong devotion to horror, then it is that urban legends are potentially real stories, things that maybe, just maybe, could happen to you. Now hold onto that thought as this particular slice of folklore may well dissuade you from packing that rucksack for the foreseeable.
I remember my primary introduction to Madman with great clarity and that moment will be etched in my memory banks forevermore. It really was a case of love at first sight. The simple effective cover image caught my eye the very second I walked into my local video store and I just knew I had to become better acquainted with the shadowy figure standing boldly, bloody axe gripped, and glaring in my direction. I recall feeling a faint chill trickling down my spine and both my pupils fully dilated while I drank it in like a boozy vagabond. With this single striking image the film staked its claim and I knew, straight off the bat, that we would forge a connection which would stretch a lifetime. Okay, settle in with your poison of choice and I shall explain all.
“…Now it’s time for my story”
Our fable begins with Camp Counselor Max (played by Carl Fredericks who only ever appeared in one other movie) leaning forward and telling the fable of Marz, a farmer and family man who was, in the words of Max “ugly and mean”. I’ve met a lot of ugly people in my time and more than a few mean ones too but “downright fruit basket” would perhaps be a more fitting introduction where Marz is concerned. You see, in a fit of blind rage, he viciously slaughtered his wife and two children as they slept, strolled down to the local tavern, placed his bloody axe on the bar, and calmly ordered a drink. The locals wasted no time in hanging him by the neck but, by the following day, his body was nowhere to be found. Okay, so we’ve established this is the shadowy death-bringer on that splendid sleeve and he is quite clearly not one to be trifled with. Thanks Max for the heads up.
Have you ever heard the term “there’s always one”? That most certainly applies to rabble-rouser Richie (Jimmy Steele) as he instantly sets out to do the precise opposite. Having just been forewarned that repeating the name Madman Marz above a faint whisper will prompt Marz into action once more, he tests out his lungs and gives waking the dead his very best shot. A man of Max’s advanced years really should have known better. Like a red rag to a bull, the impish urge is simply too immense for a randy teenager like Richie, backed up to the eyeballs with cheap booze and raging hormones. Clearly reasoning was never going to be an option here as, should we have learned anything from the old man’s fable, then it would be that Marz isn’t the type of guy you can cut a deal with. Nope, this is your worst fucking nightmare personified and about to be realized.
That is all the synopsis you need Grueheads as Joe Giannone’s forgotten treasure wastes absolutely no time in getting to the meat and red gravy. We already have a fair idea how the next eighty-plus minutes will play out but, at this point, it really couldn’t matter less. The joy will come from spending much of that time reminded, in no uncertain terms, that the hills aren’t the only things with eyes. While it’s never in any doubt that it is not going to end well for this particular camping expedition, success or failure ultimately depends on the execution of the kills and said reprisals come swiftly, mercilessly and with no shortage of style and panache.
There’s little respite for our squeaky clean twenty-somethings, as Marz begins to unceremoniously snuff them out one by one in a variety of different fiendish ways. Thankfully, these scenes are preceded with nice, unhurried build-ups and topped off with masterfully orchestrated gags, which include a valid reason not to ever get under the hood of your car again. As for the performances of the ill-fated camp counselors, they are no better or worse than your standard second-tier slasher from the period but the pay-off is in the inventive way that each sorry victim meets their demise and Giannone ensures that each kill is decidedly well staged and memorable.
Any slasher flick worth its salt needs itself an iconic killer if it wishes to stand out from the crowd and Paul Ehlers is definitely up to the task. Disinterested with hiding his grotesque features beneath a mask, Marz cuts an almost feral figure and is never less than utterly imposing. Wisely Giannone chooses not to reveal him too freely and, instead, he remains largely sheathed in shadows with an ultramarine glow dancing around him as he trundles barefoot through the foliage in search of his next victim. This, in turn, ensures that we don’t feel like he is playing to an audience, merely satisfying his blood lust before disappearing back into the whispering woods without a trace and he is that much more ominous as a result of this primal approach.
Most noteworthy is the slow burning tension and this is helped no end by James Lemmo’s adept cinematography and his use of blue tones to help create a foreboding atmosphere. We all want to dread the woods and Giannone’s criminally overlooked slasher pulls out all the stops to make it so. It is clear to see that real care and attention went into making Madman and, when you consider that lazy Friday The 13th knock-offs were already in abundance by 1982, it is great to see somebody attempting to forge a new path as opposed to simply painting by numbers. For a relatively low-budget venture, it effortlessly and proudly stands in the company of other more commercially viable slasher wannabes from an overloaded era where every independent filmmaker in America saw the opportunity to make a quick return.
Giannone dares to defy the well documented rules of slasher on numerous occasions throughout and this is both a rather brave and incredibly wise choice on his part. If you’re looking for a timid mousy-haired virgin to hang your hopes on then good luck with that as you won’t find one here. Marz is not choosy when it comes to prioritizing his victims and, while shoe-ins for survival feel the icy grip of death, a surprising candidate is elected to endure and tell the tale. As the words “Madman Marz… he’s real” reverberate through our eardrums, we will have learned a valuable lesson. Always believe in folklore kids, especially when it involves 250 pounds of axe-wielding evil with a chip on his shoulder. The fitting ending is just one of many factors that set Madman apart from so many of its rivals and is a conclusion I really didn’t see coming.
Aficionados may recognize Gaylen Ross (Dawn of The Dead) acting under the guise Alexis Dubin as the plucky Betsy but, aside from her, the cast is comprised totally of unknowns. Alas Madman would ultimately be largely forgotten due to an absolute dearth of marketing on its release. Giannone’s film couldn’t boast any elaborate promotional push and used word of mouth alone to steadily build the loyal fanbase it deservedly holds now. No big advertising campaigns, not groomed for franchising, just a good old-fashioned backwoods stalkfest with its dark heart firmly embroidered onto its sleeve.
If you’ve never previously had the experience of Madman then I passionately urge that you seek it out post-haste. It truly is a film from its time and the kind of horror movie that just wouldn’t get made anymore. Not only that but it is definitely in the upper echelons of eighties slasher and, The Burning aside, probably my own personal darling from that era. Giannone’s grim fairy tale never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up over thirty years on and that is some achievement. Moreover, it doesn’t appear to age as it keeps it simple and focuses solely on locking us in for 88 minutes and ensuring that our eyes don’t stray from the screen for a single second. Most critically, it dares to deviate from the well-worn template, and few other films from its cycle can boast that.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For the Grue Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: It has to be said that Madman doesn’t possess the largest body count but, that said, each kill counts and there are some real doozies here. The hood decapitation is a gloriously grisly standout but there are numerous other similarly effective slayings spaced out through its duration and Marz certainly doesn’t hold back when making his point with the sharp edge of his axe. Giannone also provides on the skin front courtesy of the obligatory hot tub scene which no eighties slasher should be without, accompanied by some decidedly suspect soft-porn music which scuppers any hope it has of being even vaguely erotic.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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